No. 7 Fairmont hits road to Belle Plaine for Week 7

Tony Nuss

FAIRMONT — Mat Mahoney’s first-ever playoff game as a head high school football coach pitted the Fairmont Cardinals against Belle Plaine mentor Justin Johnston and his Tigers in 2007.

Belle Plaine defeated Fairmont in the Section 2AAA quarterfinals, 26-19, during Mahoney’s rookie season before Johnston’s Tigers scratched out a 28-27 sectional semifinal victory over the Cardinals in 2008.

Mahoney, however, avenged those two postseason losses by downing Johnston and Belle Plaine in the 2012 Section 3AAA quarterfinals, 48-26, and for the 2013 sectional crown, 26-0, to even the two coaches’ head-to-head record at 2-all.

The Cardinals then posted a 26-6 Week 7 win over the Tigers last fall, but a lot has changed over the course of a year, and that will be evident when Class AAA No. 7-ranked Fairmont (5-1) travels to Belle Plaine (1-5) on Friday night.

Johnston resigned as the Tigers’ head coach during the offseason, and accepted a job as Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop’s principal.

Joe Joyce, who served as Belle Plaine’s offensive and defensive line coach in 2017, filled the void left by Johnston’s departure and faces the challenges of a 1-5 start through this fall’s first six weeks.

“We’re definitely in a rebuilding type of year,” said Joyce, who guided Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton to a state bid in 2016 during the last of his four-year head coaching tenure there. “Now, our emphasis is to get back in the weight room during the offseason, and turn this program back into a contender again.”

Dain Aslakson kicked a 42-yard field goal with 23 seconds remaining in regulation to help Belle Plaine edge New Ulm, 17-15, to snap a five-game losing skid last Friday night.

“He (Aslakson) is a soccer player first. He doesn’t even put the pads on for practice, but has a good work ethic and we’re lucky to have him as a kicker,” said Joyce.

While Aslakson’s long 3-pointer split the uprights to seal the Tigers’ first victory of 2018, Joyce’s team nearly won in Week 3 against St. Peter and during a Week 5 clash with Worthington.

“Now, it’s about building confidence. We didn’t close out our games with St. Peter and Worthington, losing by five and three points, respectively,” said Joyce. “We need to break through the mental barrier and learn how to finish games in the fourth quarter.”

“Belle Plaine has been a quality football program in the past, and they’re coming off their first win of the season, so they’ll probably be playing with a lot of positive energy Friday night,” said Mahoney. “They look like a team searching for their identity under a new coach, and maybe they found it last week.

“They’ve got a nice fullback in (junior Cole) Brown, and hammer him at opposing defenses with an old-school belly series and that can be a challenge to stop.”

“Fairmont’s defense will be a challenge for us. They’re aggressive, solid across the board and their linebackers (Jordan Wolter and Zac Ringnell) hit hard and do a nice job of coming up and filling,” said Joyce. “You can’t afford to make mistakes against a team as disciplined and well-coached as Fairmont if you expect to compete.”

Fairmont’s vaunted defense limited Worthington to only 65 total yards of offense, produced two safeties and added cornerback Caden Baarts’ pick-six for good measure during last week’s 36-6 triumph during Homecoming at Mahoney Field.

“Since we switched to a five-man front, we’ve been slowing down opposing offenses’ ability to run the ball, and we’ve been able to put pressure on the quarterback to force them to get rid of it early and our secondary has taken advantage of that,” said Mahoney.

Now, Belle Plaine senior quarterback Brandon Taylor and junior fullback Cole Brown face the task of finding a way to move the sticks against Fairmont’s swarming defense.

“Brandon has done a good job of running the offense, and Cole has really stepped in and made the running back job his this fall,” said Joyce.

On the opposite side of the ball, outside linebacker Justin Stauffacher has been the Tigers’ leader on the gridiron.

“His physical stature (5-feet-6, 140 pounds) won’t get opposing coaches’ attention, but he’s a gamer and brings it each play every game,” said Joyce.

Stauffacher and Belle Plaine’s 4-3 base defense will face the challenge of stopping Air Myren and the Cardinals’ sure-handed, high-octane receivers.

Fairmont senior quarterback Garrett Myren completed 14 of 21 passes for a career-best 207 yards and touchdown strikes to Dustin Schultz, Blake Buntjer and Jordan Wolter during last week’s win. Myren’s performance pushed his seasonal passing yardage over the 1,000 mark and increased his TD total through the air to a dozen.

“We’ve got our hands full trying to stop Fairmont’s multiple formations on offense, but we’ll do the best we can,” said Joyce.